Whom shall I fear?

candlelightAmericans are afraid.

I understand. Once a week, it seems, we wake to the news crawl at the bottom of our television screens telling us of 80 dead here, 49 killed there, a terrorist attack in France, gunfire in Orlando.

FBI crime statistics argue against our fear. Violent crime in the U.S. is down. In fact, there has been a steady drop in the number of murders, rapes, robberies and assaults since 1995. But we don’t meet statistics while walking down the street. Instead, we confront our impressions about a world that seems to have gone haywire.

There is nothing wrong with a little fear. Fear makes us cautious. Allowed to evolve into awareness, fear can become a means of protection.

It’s when we allow fear to transform into hatred that we run into problems.

A little hate can poison an entire nation. It clouds your focus, burns you alive and encourages others to hate you right back. Hate accomplishes nothing except to beget more hate.

Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who woke up each morning to a frightening world. He walked in a time and place that despised him for a hue that was not of his choosing. Surely, he had to harbor some hatred for the small-minded bigots who considered themselves superior. Somehow, he molded those volatile emotions into a movement of peace.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” he once said. “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Fire hoses turned on his brothers. The gnashing teeth of police dogs nipping at his throat. Threats that culminated in his death. The world encouraged Dr. King to return hate with hate, but he and his followers refused. They had to be scared as they marched down streets lined with those who wanted to lynch them. While trembling inside, they encouraged the world to dream of a day full of understanding, a day without fear.

“The chain reaction of evil, hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars, must be broken.”

Today’s fear is focused on extremists. The natural inclination is to hate ISIS, to hate the ideologues who think with a gun rather than with compassion. Dr. King, you’re thinking, didn’t have to deal with radical Islamists.

No, but he did have to deal with incredible injustice. He had to go face-to-face with the KKK, with sheriffs and police chiefs and mayors who wore robes after hours. He hated their ideology. He must have. I’m sure he was afraid. But he never acted out of hate.

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” Dr. King warned us.

As I struggle to find the words to express my own fear of a world ruled by hate, I keep turning to Dr. King and the teachings of those who followed them. Their words are written on my heart. Among the men of that era I admire most is Ambassador Andrew Young, who is still calling for peace in our current time of turmoil.

“I don’t think I’ve sensed as much confusion among the American people in my lifetime since the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Ambassador Young said recently, speaking of the recent police involved shootings and the protests that followed. “There’s so much bombarding us, we’re scared of the world.

“Violence grows out of frustration and emotion, leading to unintended destruction of life and property,” Ambassador Young goes on. “After it’s over, everyone is sorry.”

Easy for me to adopt this attitude. I’m not a victim of discrimination. I don’t have to deal with the growing threat of radical extremists. I do fear, however. I fear the day when hate compounds hate until it overshadows the brave men who encouraged us to dream. I’m afraid we’re on the verge of forgetting the words of those who have walked through darkness and used peace as their illumination.

Their words, their actions, can light our path through this frightening time.

Fear can fuel a movement. Hate will tear it apart.

The loudest whisper

Whisper-of-GodI know the sound of God’s voice.

He sounds like a car engine struggling to start.

I begin every morning letting God hear my voice. It’s 2 a.m., dark and quiet, no distractions. Most of the time, I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the court. I’ve spent too much time in anger, or resentment, or not enough time serving others. Many a morning, I end my prayer with a request.

On gritty Pleasantdale Road, one wish was granted.

It was a situation that could have easily guided me into a pothole of anger. I was supposed to meet a man to discuss his unpleasant ride on Pleasantdale. He was a no show. No phone call. No apology. Just me, my camera, and sweat rolling down my back as big rigs rambled by my toes.

Right in front of me, God cleared his throat.

My prayer request was for an opportunity to serve someone in need. That opportunity came in the form of a woman, her two children, and a car that decided it wanted nothing more to do with Atlanta traffic. She was from Gambia. Her English was as broken as the engine of her Honda. I had a difficult time understanding where she was from, and I never understood where she was trying to go. It was clear that her children, one of them an infant, were miserable and needed to get away from the sun. Her car blocked the I-85 ramp to Pleasantdale that filled with prickly commuters and their horns.

Part of my brain was occupied by the man who’d summoned me to Pleasantdale Road only to waste my time. After a failed effort to push the stubborn Honda off of the ramp, I tried to reach the man by phone to find out if perhaps I’d misunderstood the time of our meeting. No answer. No return call. There was no misunderstanding, only a gaping hole in my work load that I would have to scramble to fill. There was a moment of mild panic. My job was to produce news stories, and one had just slipped away.

Then I realized my time was not wasted at all. It simply had another purpose. After all, I’d asked for this.

The Bible says that God communicates not with an earthquake, or a fire, but with a gentle whisper. Just last week, the whisper came as I loitered beside my locked news vehicle with the keys in the ignition. That’s right. I locked the keys in the car, along with my phone. In an area of town teeming with homelessness and despair, all I could do was sit on my bumper and wait for a co-worker to arrive with a spare key. God’s whisper arrived first.

A young man with a backpack and distant eyes approached with a story about the neighborhood violence that had taken his sister. It seemed he just wanted to vent, and I let him. It was an opportunity to offer compassion to a stranger, one placed in my path because of keys dangling behind a locked door. After a few minutes, my new friend made a request.

“Hey, can I have a dollar?”

He specifically requested one dollar. Not two. Not five. One. It just so happened that the previous Sunday, our pastor had passed out crisp new one dollar bills to the entire congregation. We were sent forth with a mission of generosity, to find a way to use that dollar in an act of generosity.

Here was my opportunity.

I handed that young man the dollar and the story of it’s purpose. I told him God was watching over him. He accepted the gift with grace, but seemed doubtful that I’d given him anything more than just an ordinary piece of currency. God’s whisper told me something more.

On Pleasantdale Road, I struggled to help the family stranded by a faulty automobile. I summoned a police officer to help me push the woman’s car out of the road. I bought bottled water to keep the family cool, but my phone calls failed to summon the help they really needed. Eventually, the mom left to negotiate with a tow truck driver at a nearby gas station. I returned to my work day convinced I’d done all I could, but nagged by the feeling that it wasn’t enough.

Twice, my plans were disrupted. Twice, God whispered that something better was afoot.

God might whisper. He might growl like a failing car engine, or ding like the alarm of a car with the keys locked inside.

All you have to do is listen.